#borschtbeltredux

By Jesse Pearson

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#borschtbeltredux:

We’re in Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon in a penthouse apartment 26 stories above the Miracle Mile. A man named Alec Sulkin sinks into an expansive couch. Clad in jeans and an aging New England Patriots hoodie, he alternates between fiddling with his iPhone and watching the Dodgers beat the Rockies on the TV in front of him. He has the floppy, basset-hound handsomeness of a Rubber Soul–era Beatle and lives in what looks like a hotel suite that has been squatted by a lassitudinous college-age stoner. Modern Stormtrooper is the predominant interior design motif. The cannon fodder of the Galactic Empire looks down upon him from various posters and prints. Competing for pride of place are images of Peter, Brian and Stewie Griffin—understandably so since Sulkin is a staff writer and producer on the Fox animated series Family Guy.

The 39-year-old Sulkin peers at his iPhone with a momentary flash of purpose. He opens the Twitter app, taps out a few words, thinks briefly, taps a little bit more and hits the tweet button. The following piece of pith goes up on his Twitter account: “Just once, I’d like to trigger an explosion while walking away from it.” Instantly, his followers read it. There are 365,309 of them—an ever-shifting mass of strangers, friends, celebrities, stalkers and detractors. Within seconds, their responses begin to roll in. More than 340 followers retweet the joke (or, in Twitter vernacular, RT it). Another 248 followers favorite it. “More mentions than minutes is a good rule of thumb,” Sulkin says with a whiff of mantra.

Sulkin doesn’t remember the day he joined Twitter. All he knows is that he signed up at some point in March 2009 only to let his account languish, as many people do. Mainly, he was unsure how to make Twitter a part of his life, as many people are. He does know, however, the exact moment he got serious about Twitter—a quick, unconsidered moment at home alone: “I was watching The Net, with Sandra Bullock, which is a movie I’ve seen many more times than it deserves. I was looking at her weird 1990s khakis, and I tweeted about that.” The exact tweet, for historical purposes: “Sandra Bullock sports an unreasonably high-waisted pair of khakis in The Net. (I’m back!)”

Such was the inauspicious beginning of Sulkin’s perfection of a new and strange sort of celebrity—Twitter stardom. The first wave of followers was composed of people around the Family Guy office—fellow writers whom Sulkin respects—who joined the site just to follow @thesulk, his nom de tweets. One of them, Gary Janetti (@GaryJanetti, 59,348 followers), is the boyfriend of stylist guy Brad Goreski from the Bravo series It’s a Brad, Brad World. At some point, Goreski (@mrbradgoreski, 173,942 followers), who had something like 20,000 followers at the time, #FF’d Sulkin (that’s Twitter shorthand for recommending another user to one’s own followers). And presto, the next wave of followers for @thesulk. Over the next few months—through a combination of the right time (the dawn of Twitter), the right place (strategically perfect #FFs and RTs) and the right guy (Sulkin is deeply, naturally funny)—@thesulk found himself getting very, very popular. And that popularity has little to do with Family Guy or the fact that until recently he was having sexual relations with Sarah Silverman. Today, Sulkin is legitimately famous because of Twitter.

Writing a good tweet can be vexing—you try being memorably funny and cogent in 140 characters or fewer—but comedians seem adept at it. If nothing else, Twitter, a place where humor needs to be honed into a small, diamond-sharp shiv, reminds us that one simple joke can be vast in its relevance and depth. Look at some of the best aphoristic humorists and you’ll see how much can be said in just a few words. S.J. Perelman: “To err is human; to forgive, supine.” (36 characters.) Oscar Wilde: “One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.” (61 characters.) Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” (84 characters.) The same goes for the Borscht Belt comedians of yore, whose bam-bam-bam lines would have been RT’d like crazy. As Don Rickles (@DonRickles, 70,626 followers) recently told me via e-mail, “If Henny Youngman were alive today he would be having a field day with Twitter.” Rickles is right. One of Youngman’s more famous lines—“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading”—is a modest 58 characters. All the Borscht Belters kept it short and sweet. To wit, Jackie Mason: “Eighty percent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe.” (73 characters.) Or Joan Rivers: “A man can sleep around, no questions asked. But if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she’s a tramp.” (98 characters.)

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Sulkin alternates between a few comedic approaches on Twitter. There’s the blue material: “Not to be a dick but jizz! Jizz! Jizz! Drip. Piss.” There are lame puns: “Wrote a paper on big 90s boobs, but I was never totally satisfied with my Tiffani-Amber Thesis.” (Annoyed friends have told Sulkin they are sure he suffers from Witzelsucht syndrome, a rare neurological disorder characterized by excessive, compulsive punning.) And then there are my favorites—the brutally self-deprecating put-downs: “Hiding weakness is one of my strengths.” And “I disgust myself but I don’t surprise myself.”

“I have a lot of shitty months,” he says, which is fine by me because the anxious, neurotic stuff is where Sulkin not only clambers to the top of the Twitter heap but also becomes a torchbearer of classic Jewish comedy. (Another of my all-time favorite Sulkin tweets: “Every time my Dad blows his nose, I kinda get why there was a holocaust.”) Sulkin’s wildly varied repertoire stems from his worry about being pigeonholed as a one-note comic. “Woody Allen is a great example of someone who has smart jokes and silly jokes,” he says. “He pays homage to Groucho Marx, but a lot of his other jokes are incredibly sophisticated and nuanced. Some of his movies are barely funny. They’re tragic. I try to do that in some of my stuff. If I’m feeling sad, I’ll tweet something sad. I don’t care that it isn’t a joke.”

Allow me to humbly propose a theory about comedy on Twitter: We have become too immersed in postmodern humor—mockumentaries, shows within shows, unreliable comedic narrators, knowing glances to the camera. Comedy has become like one big William Gaddis novel. And that’s great: It’s advanced; it makes us sophisticated. Yet where does the simple, pure joke live in that jungle of referential complication? All this cleverness risks suffocating the kernels of stupid truth that are at the heart of everything funny. But not on Twitter—a wildlife preserve for one-liners, puns and double entendres. At its essence, Twitter is a mode of comedy that resists too much cleverness. And comedians, as in real-life comedians, are thankful for it. “Meta-comedy is so goddamn annoying,” Norm Macdonald (@normmacdonald, 365,258 followers) told me not long ago. “Comedy isn’t important enough to be meta. To me, the best joke ever is ‘Take my wife, please.’ It’s a three-word setup and a one-word punch line.”

Even meta-comedy masters like Garry Shandling, the co-creator of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (Old Testament meta) and The Larry Sanders Show (New Testament meta), are enlivened by Twitter (@GarryShandling, 168,256 followers). His feed is full of odd spellings, inventive grammar and nonsensical thoughts. It’s warty and only occasionally funny, but it’s weirdly compelling. He treats his followers as if they were the manifestation of a Hydra that follows him around his house. He frequently says good night on Twitter, and his fans say it back to him—kind of like a twisted, digital version of The Waltons. Meanwhile, he still manages a hysterical gem now and again (e.g., “eHarmony matched me up with a gun”).

“Some of my tweets are just silly,” Shandling explains. “They don’t make sense on the surface, but my followers start to sense this punchy guy. That’s hilarious to me. Sometimes they’ll go, ‘Are you drinking tonight, Garry?’ The answer is always no, because I don’t drink. But I get loose, and I think they’re not used to people being so loose on Twitter. I work Twitter like it’s a big room. A comedian working a nightclub can lose the room, but on Twitter you can actually lose the whole world.”

The first published jokes to spring forth from Sulkin’s mind appeared in a much more analog venue—The Circle, the more subversive of the two newspapers at his tony Massachusetts prep school, Middlesex. The humor, while not dripping with nuance, at least attempted to push buttons. “We once published ‘The Top 10 Worst Things About Our School Librarian,’?” he tells me. “It was mean—things like ‘You’re old, and your life is sad.’?” The piece caused such a stir that Sulkin found himself standing before the school’s headmaster, treading carpet and begging forgiveness. Later, during Sulkin’s senior year, the school appointed a new headmaster, an Asian American woman. Again, he published a list—this time of “names one shouldn’t call” the new hire. Each was a ridiculous Wild West insult (“Lily Liver,” “Chicken Gizzard”). Among the gags was “Yellowbelly.” A PC shit storm ensued due to the headmaster’s ethnicity, and Sulkin spent graduation day in a disciplinary meeting facing bizarre charges of racism, which were later dropped.

He spent the next four years at Connecticut College, where he majored in pot smoking. “I’m sure the classes and teachers were great,” he says. “But I never went.” (Sulkin’s love affair with THC continues today, and some of his best tweets have been about weed—e.g., “Kids, don’t smoke pot. Unless you want to be like the Beatles” or “Kids, never mix pot, alcohol and vicodin unless you want a severe case of the fucking wonderfuls.”) As a senior, Sulkin scored an internship at Saturday Night Live. “Chris Farley was there,” he recalls. “David Spade was there. It was the remnants of the Adam Sandler–Mike Myers era.” After graduation, he parlayed the internship into a job as a writers’ assistant. Mainly this meant gofering, but from time to time he put actual words to paper. “I sometimes would write those little ads with that week’s host saying, ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so. I’m hosting Saturday Night Live, with musical guest so-and-so.’ Then they would do a quick joke, which was mine. It was exciting.” Norm Macdonald, who was still doing “Weekend Update” at the time, remembers Sulkin, though just barely. “He hardly ever spoke,” Macdonald says.

After being replaced at SNL by Regis Philbin’s daughter (weird), Sulkin drifted into stand-up comedy. Though he professes to have hated every minute of it, he continued to tell jokes before a live audience for the next three years, dragging himself on stage to somnambulate his way through a set of static material for minuscule crowds who didn’t give a shit about him. “I remember all my terrible jokes,” he says. “It was around the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta so I did something about the Jewish Olympics with events like the ‘oy vey-vault’ and the ‘shot-put that down before you hurt yourself.’?”

Salvation came in 1999 when he was asked to audition for a writer’s position on The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn. (Remember him?) After getting the morning paper and quickly submitting 50 jokes about the news contained therein (an exercise not unlike Twitter), Sulkin got the job. Also on Kilborn’s staff was Wellesley Wild, an old friend from Sulkin’s Marijuana U days at Connecticut College. “Wellesley and I decided that we would partner up,” says Sulkin. “We mainly wanted to get into sitcoms because you can only make a certain amount of money writing for late-night television, thanks to union rules.” One of their early spec scripts landed them on the 2003 Fox series The Pitts, which had the lifespan of a mayfly. But the show’s writing staff included Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Guess where that led.

But first, the Sarah Silverman part of the story. On Christmas Day 2009, Sulkin was sitting in a New York City hotel room when he got an automated e-mail that read, “Sarah Silverman is now following you on Twitter.” It was immediately followed by a note. “She sent me a direct message that said, ‘You’re funny,’?” Sulkin remembers. “I started writing her back right away. Initially, I was a little bit of a dick. I was kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re famous. I can’t talk to you.’ She bristled at that, so I realized it wasn’t the way to go. Within two days, though, we were exchanging dozens of messages. I was still in New York, but I felt that something was going to happen. One night soon afterward, I was back in L.A. and Sarah sent me a direct message saying, ‘I’m not feeling well. Will you come over and feel my forehead?’ I went to her house instantly. That was the night before New Year’s Eve, and from that day forward, we didn’t spend a night apart for months. It was really intense and great for a long time.”

Over e-mail, I ask Silverman why she felt compelled to contact Sulkin. (They have since broken up—very amicably, thank you.) “I read his tweets, and they were so funny, dark and beautiful. He’s like this sardonic, honest, hilarious poet.” As for why she thinks Sulkin is so good in 140-character nano-quips: “Twitter isn’t based on politics or selling yourself in a room. It’s straight-up talent. No one owns it. There are no notes or executives; there is just one cook. And Alec baring his cynical soul is undeniable greatness.”

Another undeniable result: All the cynical soul baring has turned him into a veritable Twitter crush. Female followers randomly send him messages like “ur the only man id ever let put it in my bum. i trust u being my soul mate so much im willing2sacrifice my sacred hole.” “There are times,” Sulkin says, “when I get an @ message from someone and I blow up their avatar photo and think, Is the person who wrote this suggestive thing hot? And do they live in Los Angeles? And are they over 21?”

Most likely, anal virginity is being offered to Sulkin because of his fame and relative fortune—as opposed to the hoary chestnut about women being attracted to a man’s sense of humor above all else. But there is something going on with Twitter, a new kind of star-to-fan relationship that allows a person’s followers to feel closer to him than they would a guy who was just a successful writer or comedian. “Twitter is an intimate thing,” Sulkin says. “When I read a Steve Martin tweet, it’s like I can hear his voice. And if you read my stuff carefully and you’re smart, I think you could figure out a lot about me. More people now know me from Twitter than have ever known me for anything else. It’s insane how many people are following me. I feel like the biggest part of my existence is spent trying to continually feed these people.”

I’ve started to believe that tweeting well is a form of seduction. You can’t come on too strong, but at the same time, you have to give the object of your desire (your needy, fickle followers) the right amount of attention. They want to feel special and feel like they’re part of something when they follow you. All the while, you don’t want to seem desperate. These days, Sulkin’s life is scheduled around striking this delicate balance. “It sounds ridiculous,” he says, “but if I know I’m going out for the night, I’ll tweet right before I leave. Then I know I’ll have at least a three-hour cushion to do whatever the fuck I want. It’s like clearing space in my schedule.”

The headquarters of Seth MacFarlane’s animated comedy empire are next door to the building where Sulkin lives. (“Less than a one-song walk door-to-door,” he says.) The windows of Sulkin’s corner office are tinted to thwart the perpetual L.A. sunlight, and his walls are bare save for a corkboard. In one corner, a framed, signed Larry Bird jersey leans against the wall. In another corner, there’s a guitar. On this day, three other Family Guy writers are gathered inside. Two of them—Artie Johann (@DearAnyone, 52,042 followers) and Shawn Ries (@shawnries, 15,564 followers)—are prolific tweeters themselves. The third, a very funny man named Ted Jessup, should be on Twitter but is not. He tells me, with a weary sigh, that he fears it would become another “onerous obligation.”

Their task is to figure out how to close out a scene in which the show’s lovable ESL housekeeper character, Consuela, has somehow found herself directing traffic at a busy intersection. “Okay,” Sulkin says, looking down at the script in his hand, “I guess we’re good through when she says, ‘No, no, no, no!’ We can do whatever we want after that.”

To get in the right mind-set, everyone starts channeling Consuela by quietly repeating her catchphrase—the word no in a heavy Spanish accent with a teasing falsetto. “We could have her stop to squeegee someone’s windshield,” Ries says.

“One of those hot-dog trucks could come by. The guy could give her a hot dog while saying ‘That’s $2’ and she could say, ‘No!’?” Jessup offers.

“Maybe she does four ‘nos’ and then says to the next car, ‘Sí, you come,’?” Sulkin suggests. “When it comes forward, she could say, ‘You give me ride home?’?”

The idea is met by laughter and starts to branch off into a more developed riff. “So she gets in the car,” Sulkin continues, “and the guy sighs and goes, ‘Okay, where do you live?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know.’?” Now, the other writers pitch in again, each speaking in Consuela’s voice.

“….is by Enterprise Rent-A-Car.”

“….is by check-cashing place.”

“….is by the check-cashing Chinese food restaurant.”

“Have you seen that place?” Sulkin asks the room, placing the riff on hold. “When you come back from the airport, there’s a place that’s check cashing, Chinese food, chicken wings and doughnuts.” A mini-discussion of racial stereotyping in the urban retail world begins. More tangents bloom, until eventually we’re so far off topic that Jessup is explaining—in quite an erudite way—the American buffalo’s path to extinction and the etymological origin of the phrase You’re fired!

As they wind down, I check Twitter on my phone and see that Sulkin tweeted just a few minutes ago, apparently using sleight of hand. (The tweet: “?‘You from LA?’ ‘Yup. Bored and bred.’?”) Later, when I ask him about it, he tells me, “I’m constantly monitoring Twitter.” He pays close attention to how many followers he’s gaining or losing at any given moment and how many people are mentioning him. “I’m tweeting all the time—at work, in the middle of the day, whenever.” Johann tells us that, for his part, he keeps a Stickie on his computer desktop where he logs potential tweets. “I looked at it the other day,” he says. “It was all dick stuff.”

The tweet-heavy work environment doesn’t seem to bother their boss, Seth MacFarlane (@SethMacFarlane, 1,962,406 followers). “For me, Alec completely legitimized the whole idea of Twitter,” MacFarlane says. “Each medium has its own style and its own requirements, and Alec invented his own writing style for this medium. When I read Alec’s Twitter account, I thought, God, this completely changes things.

“Most Twitter feeds are strings of gobbledygook—oftentimes they don’t even make sense. But it’s a perfect format for Alec because he has an observational mind that’s unparalleled. I was watching reruns of the old Dick Van Dyke Show the other day, and it occurred to me that Alec is a modern-day Morey Amsterdam. He’s the guy who just stands in the room and reels off strings of impossibly quick and impossibly clever one-liners. He really is the 2012 version—in his hipness, relevance, progressiveness and edginess—of the old-style Jewish comedian.”

On a Thursday night in West Hollywood, I meet Sulkin at a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. A variety of stand-up routines are scheduled to begin shortly in the bar’s back room. Sulkin, wearing a blazer-and-tie combo that gives him the look of a down-at-the-heels prep school English teacher, had told me beforehand that the Twitterati (his phrase) will be out in force. Now, he introduces me to a bunch of them as they stand in a scrum in the middle of the room. Their faces mean nothing to me, and as we shake hands, neither do their given names. But when they tell me their Twitter handles, there is a jolt of recognition. They are, in no particular order:

@GuyEndoreKaiser, 26,711 followers, comedy writer. Sample tweet: “Taking an Italian person to The Olive Garden is like taking a black person to 1864.”

@DearAnyone, 52,042 followers, Family Guy’s Johann. Sample tweet: “I’m just smart enough to be frustrated with how dumb I am.”

@DamienFahey, 42,234 followers, one-time Carson Daly replacement on MTV’s Total Request Live. Sample tweet: “The worst iPhone app ever would be one that sends you a text message anytime your dad gets a boner.”

Though I’m meeting them for the first time (excepting Johann), I already know their senses of humor. And if any of the great psychological theories on humor are to be believed, I therefore could easily extrapolate their deepest anxieties and fixations. That’s partly why I’m so interested in Twitter users who aren’t necessarily professional jokesters—my personal Twitterati. (Every Twitter user has such a list.) The comic musings of the everyday tweeter serve as a sort of prism into their lives. It’s a kind of compelling, hilarious autobiography, and it makes other people’s mundanity totally interesting. Take, for instance, @tracy_marq, 10,611 followers, a 20-year-old cashier from the L.A. suburbs. Sample tweet: “Someone go downstairs and see why my mom was crying for two hours and then get me a granola bar and bring it upstairs.” Or @IamEnidColeslaw, 35,972 followers, a mysterious and vulgar 26-year-old clerical worker from Chicago. Sample tweet: “Just ate McDonalds after working out, which is the same as taking a shit after a shower.”

Here’s where the egalitarian nature of Twitter really shines through. Write enough funny tweets, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a garbage man or a plutocrat—eventually you’ll start getting followers, accolades and that strange, addictive Twitter fame.

Back at Sulkin’s Miracle Mile apartment, I ask him if he ever thinks about the end of Twitter. The question feels strangely solemn, as though I’m asking about the end of the world. But really, how long can Twitter be sustained until it becomes something radically different? Everything on the web is always just a nascent form of its next version anyway. “Sometimes I get a little bit tired of it,” Sulkin says. “And I think, Maybe I should just cap it at 5,000 tweets, which is coming soon.” (His self-imposed retirement from Twitter never occurred, obviously. As of press time he has surpassed the 5,000-tweet plateau by almost 1,000 tweets.) “But then I also think, Fuck that! Stopping now would be like saying, ‘I’m not funny anymore.’ And I do think that I can still be funny, poignant or sad in a way that’s entertaining. I never want to give that up.”

I don’t think Sulkin could stop tweeting even if he wanted to. In the drafts section of his iPhone’s Twitter app, he has 320 potential tweets lined up. And on his computer, there is a tweet file that is hovering around 16,000 characters. Tweets come to him when he’s in the shower, when he’s walking across the street to work, when he’s on planes. Basically, life hands tweets to Sulkin because he’s hardwired to receive them. Like most funny people, he’s a full-time observer. Twitter is made for his breed.

“So it never ends?” I ask.

Sulkin laughs. “It might have been Seth MacFarlane who asked a while ago, ‘What do we do now? Do we tweet every day until we die?’?”

Sorry, @thesulk, but the answer, probably, is yes.


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